A day after the last batch of American soldiers left Afghan soil, U.S. President Joe Biden defended his decision to go through with the withdrawal, which culminated in violent chaos focused around Kabul’s airport, with Afghans scrambling to escape the tightening grip of the incipient Taliban regime and terrorists using the opportunity to strike.
In a televised address from the White House, Mr. Biden said an era of American interventions to “remake other countries” was ending.
“Imagine if we had begun evacuations in June or July, bringing in thousands of American troops and evacuating more than 120,000 people in the middle of a civil war. There still would have been a rush to the airport, a breakdown in confidence and control of the government…” Mr. Biden said.
While taking responsibility for the decision to withdraw troops, Mr. Biden said his predecessor, Donald Trump, had signed a deal with the Taliban that did not require the outfit to work with the government in Kabul and included the release of 5,000 prisoners. By the time he took office, the Taliban were at their strongest since 2001 and he was left with two choices — follow the agreement or send thousands of more troops in, Mr. Biden said.
“To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest? In my view, we only have one: to make sure Afghanistan can never be used again to launch an attack on our homeland,” he said, adding, that al-Qaeda was “decimated” and Osama bin Laden had been brought to justice.
With competition and challenges from China and Russia, Mr. Biden said his duty was to defend America against the threats of 2021 and the future, not the threats of 2001. “And there’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan,” he said, adding that the country had to turn the page on two decades of foreign policy.
“First, we must set missions with clear, achievable goals — not ones we’ll never reach. And second, we must stay clearly focused on the fundamental national security interest of the United States of America. This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” he said.
Praising America’s military and diplomatic personnel, and expressing gratitude to the family of killed soldiers for a “debt we can never repay,” Mr. Biden said the mission had evacuated more than 120,000 individuals and was an “extraordinary success”.
He said he had decided to withdraw troops by August 31 based on an assumption that the “more than 300,000” Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), trained by the U.S. over the past 20 years, would be a “strong adversary” against the Taliban.
“That assumption….turned out not to be accurate,” Mr. Biden said, adding that he had prepared for the eventuality that the ANSF would not fight beyond the U.S. withdrawal, authorizing 6,000 troops — most of whom were flown back in at short notice — to secure Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport (HKIA) .
On a July 23 call between President and his Afghan counterpart, Ashraf Ghani — their last conversation before Mr. Ghani fled Kabul — neither leader seemed aware of or prepared for Kabul to fall so quickly, Reuters reported on Tuesday.
Both Republicans and Democrats have criticised Mr. Biden for the manner in which the exit occurred. Less than 40% of Americans approve of how the exit was handled, with 49% saying U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan until all Americans and Afghan allies are evacuated, as per the results of a pre-withdrawal survey conducted by Reuters/Ipsos poll (results of which were released on Monday).
With many vulnerable Afghans, citizens from third countries and up to 200 Americans still left in the country, Mr. Biden said on Tuesday the administration had reached out 19 times to Americans in Afghanistan since March, with offers of help them evacuate.
“Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken is leading the continued diplomatic efforts to ensure a safe passage for any American, Afghan partner, or foreign national who wants to leave Afghanistan,” he said, adding that he would not take the Taliban at their word but by assess their actions as regards their stated commitment to safe passage for these individuals. “…We have leverage to make sure these commitments are met,” he said.
He said the U.S. had the ability to strike terrorists without boots on the ground (‘over the ground capabilities’) and warned the ISIS-K, the group that claimed responsibility for an attack that killed 170 civilians in addition to some U.S. troops. “And to ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet,” he said.
The U.S. is investigating civilian casualties from a counter-terror drone strike it conducted over the weekend, which killed 10 members of a family, including eight children.
In Tuesday’s speech, Mr. Biden said the U.S. would continue to support and speak out for Afghanistan’s people, particularly its women and girls, including via regional diplomacy and engagement, but was firm that the $2.3 trillion military operation (a Brown University estimate that includes debt servicing costs) had to come to an end.
“I refused to continue in a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people,” Mr. Biden said.